It’s like dissing a toddler’s beginner science book because the theory of relativity isn’t discussed in exhaustive detail. It’s as foolish as trashing a comic book because the art isn’t of da Vinci quality. It’s as absurd as being mad because a Michael Moore movie isn’t any good or that a candy bar has too much chocolate in it. The review in the New York Times of Martin van Creveld’s new book about war is like expecting a product to be something it isn’t supposed to be. It seems that the Times Reviewer thinks that a book on war isn’t any good unless it deals with gays and feminists. I suppose, though, the New York Times Reviewers don’t like any book unless it deals with gays and feminists at this point, so far has the Times’ reviews degraded to prosaic PCism.
Martin van Creveld’s book The Culture of War is an epic investigation of the why of war, not just the history of same. Van Creveld concludes that war is a part of man’s psyche, a part of man’s very makeup, not just a political expression or some accidental incidental. Man has a never satisfied hunger for war which explains the almost religious veneration for war casualties and veterans and the fascination with uniforms and weapons he exhibits. Man IS war.
This is a heady thesis. It goes against, to a degree, the thoughts of famous Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz who said that war was really just politics by another method — giving war a more disinterested, clinical imputes. Van Creveld is saying man indulges in war because he must, not because he merely chooses to in order to advance a political cause, a la Clausewitz.
OK, OK, that’s all pretty technical and deep. But that’s what this book is all about. Mr. van Creveld presents a firm thesis that war is ingrained in man and then goes about to review history to show it. He discusses in detail the love of showy uniforms, war themes, music, famous personalities at war, various conflicts and outcomes and the like. It’s intended to be a comprehensive history and clocking in at 512 pages it’s nigh on just that.
So, what was the New York Times’ chief complaints? It was too detailed, the writer likes war too much, and, most curious, the book didn’t talk about gays and feminists.
Really, it all comes down to just about that. Well, that and the fact that reviewer Barry Gewen thinks that the author doesn’t like the sort of folks for which Gewen has an affinity. Gewen asserts that van Creveld stands against feminists, pointy-headed intellectuals, postmodernists and a whole litany of others and he’s obviously allowed that to influence his review. In fact, the whole review is an exercise in anti-intellectualism, as if written by a 20-something trying to prove he’s hip instead of the grizzled illiterati that Gewen is.
After his first paragraph more concerned with the aforementioned feminists and pointy-headed intellectuals, reviewer Gewen gives a backhanded compliment to van Creveld saying he “knows a lot about a lot” and that he has a near encyclopedic knowledge about war. Yet Gewen ridiculously follows that up with a complaint: “though one missing topic is homosexuality in the military.”
The book, Mr. Gewen, is not about gays. It’s about war. Sadly, what we have here is a reviewer that slams a book for not being about a subject it never supposed itself to be about.
Gewen further flays the book by claiming that the encyclopedic knowledge of the author is somehow too encyclopedic. But, in the end, Gewen, I think, gets one of van Creveld’s theories wrong. Gewen seems to think Van Creveld is positing that the concept of MAD (mutually assured destruction) altogether successfully and will permanently eliminate war. After all, we haven’t seen a nuclear explosion set off in anger since WWII. And Gewen’s Review scoffs at the claim.
Readers may reach a different conclusion. The world came perilously close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, and as more and more countries acquire nuclear weapons, it requires a real leap of faith to believe that deterrence will continue to work at all times in all places. And that’s not to mention nuclear terrorism. In truth, it’s hard to finish “The Culture of War” without feeling that Mr. van Creveld has left us all sitting out on a limb — and that the noise we hear is the sound of sawing.
But, I think Gewen misreads van Creveld here. I don’t think the war author imagines that MAD will “continue to work at all times in all places.” Only that it will most of the time. Additionally, Gewen seems to ignore the singular fact that, despite the existence of the nuclear bomb, man has indulged his penchant for war unabated since that fateful day in Nagasaki. Hundreds of small wars have raged and will continue to, as van Creveld obviously knows.
Gewen seems to prove that he misses the point in his penultimate paragraph.
It’s an odd, gloomy kind of hope that Mr. van Creveld holds out, and you can’t avoid the suspicion that he offers it because he has painted himself into an intellectual corner. If war is a fact of life, and nuclear weapons no less so, then the logic of the argument seems to dictate a future of inevitable nuclear destruction. Deterrence is his way out of this quandary, his deus ex machina.
Gewen just doesn’t “get” the fact that war does not necessarily mean usage of nuclear weapons. That van Creveld doesn’t evince much worry of another great conflict like WWII does not mean that he has painted himself into an “intellectual corner” by insisting that war is inherent in man. It only means that the fear of MAD will help relegate that passion for war to reveal itself in smaller bites instead of a worldwide mouthful.
Of Creveld’s theory, eminent military historian Victor Davis Hanson says “…on closer examination of the subtle and often disinterested way Mr. Creveld presents his compelling evidence, I cannot, and end in agreement with his pessimistic diagnosis…” Hanson then goes on to discuss the long history of war and the brief stretches of peace that tends to prove van Creveld right, that man is inherently a war-like creature.
One would think that if van Creveld was suddenly positing that, due to MAD, the end of war had arrived, Hanson might mention the fact in his own review of The Culture of War. But, Hanson makes no mention of it.
Upon reflection, one has the feeling that van Creveld’s distaste of Gewen’s sort of folk made Gewen strive to dislike and misunderstand The Culture of War and to review it based on his desire to slam the book’s author over a perceived lack of PC values instead of on the merits of the book. But, then we are used to such blindness from The New York Times, aren’t we?
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